“My name is Aurora!” Aurora (Nicholle Cherrie) almost barks at Lois (Beth Elliott). I just hope I’ve spelt Aurora correctly: the show’s programme has the character’s name down as Roo, which is what Lois called her. Whatever her identity, she lives in a flat gifted to her and her brother Orion (Nathan Queeley-Dennis) by their parents. For the purposes of the narrative, I am assuming matters relating to inheritance tax have been dealt with one way or another. What the audience does know is that Lois, a white lady, finds her new boyfriend Orion’s accommodation pleasant and comfortable, and while Orion’s point of view is that they have simply fallen in love with each other, Aurora sees Lois’ rather sudden move in – without, it would seem, making any contribution to the household bills – as yet another land grab in the history of white people’s land grabs from black people.
Over-dramatic, one might be inclined to assume – it’s not as if Lois was ever violent. But a fair amount of context leads up to this viewpoint, as the production explores, with varying degrees of subtlety (and distinct unsubtlety) quite what the ‘black love’ of the show’s title means. The definition that stuck in my mind was one about “looking in the mirror and accepting myself”, and both siblings speak at length about the kind of dynamic, if imperfect, relationship their parents had. They had quarrels, if I can call them that, in front of their children, which made me wonder what sort of disagreements they had out of Aurora and Orion’s earshot.
Aurora is outraged by the injustices that come with being both black and a woman, though she controls and channels her anger in ways that people of all kinds who speak truth to power would do well to consider. One of her strategies is ‘pleasure activism’, a term attributed, although the show doesn’t say so, to the writer and activist Adrienne Maree Brown, and aims to encourage furthering the cause of social justice in ways that participants can get some enjoyment out of, as opposed to being perennially dour and belligerent. (I would be surprised if shouting “pussy hole!” repeatedly is the sort of thing Brown had in mind, but you never know.)
The show follows the musical theatre convention that a song arises from emotions that become so strong they can no longer be contained by spoken word alone. Orion is going for auditions, egged on by the ever-confident Lois, whose efforts to understand black culture apparently extends to watching a YouTube video on how to cook rice and peas. Orion’s ambitions for a career in the entertainment industry provide some insightful commentary on the sort of characters black man invariably find themselves auditioning for, and a key decision in the creative process in a production he gets cast in is a springboard that lays out what he really wants to achieve.
The selective use of microphones on stands seemed unnecessary, and there’s not always enough detail about, somewhat ironically, the female characters. Nathan Queeley-Dennis’ Orion is struggling and vulnerable in his almost crippling self-deprecation and is the sole character I came away knowing about. With Aurora and Lois, I felt I only really knew what their opinions were. The in-the-round – or, strictly speaking, in-the-rectangle – set up, helps to provide a living room ambience, drawing more of the audience closer to the stage than a more traditional proscenium arch layout would: it’s not often that one has a ticket in row P and finds oneself in the front row. The actors’ singing, individually and collectively, is a pleasure to listen to, irrespective of the subject matter.
The show runs without an interval, and yet feels as if it could do with one, if only to insert an entire second act afterwards. It’s not exactly an abrupt ending, but it is one that leaves so many narrative strands unresolved. Then again, perhaps the production is trying to say that life’s loose ends cannot, in reality, be neatly tied together. There are some pertinent issues that come to the fore – Aurora talks frankly about judgements pronounced on black women whatever they wear, while Orion confronts his sister over what he asserts are impossible demands those very same black women place on their partners and spouses. For the most part, this production is riveting, challenging as much as it is celebratory.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Meet Aurora and Orion. Sister and brother. Constellations in time. More than blood. More than just fam.
Inside their small London flat, memories of their parents’ Black love surrounds them. When that love is threatened, they must first find understanding and connection before they can begin to find a way back to one another.
An explosion of form-busting storytelling, Black Love celebrates and investigates the Black experience through music, real-life stories and imagined worlds. This ‘beautiful ode to black society and home’ (The Guardian) is not to be missed.
Directed by Chinonyerem Odimba; Designer Richard Kent; Lighting Designer Richard Howell; Sound Designer Joel Price; Video Designer Gillian Tan; Casting Director Jacob Sparrow; Musical Director Candida Caldicot; Associate Musical Director Abdul Shyllon; Costume Supervisor Nathasha Ward; Assistant Director Kaleya Baxe
Kiln Theatre, Paines Plough and tiata fahodzi present
Book and Lyrics by Chinonyerem Odimba, with Music by Ben and Max Ringham
28 March – 23 April 2022
Press night: 1 April 2022 at 7pm